Time to be Human

Amelia Liddell & James Soderholm

For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a literary critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic

--Karl Marx

JS:  Sometimes thinking in geological or even better cosmic time sorts me out. If the Earth were a 24-hour clock, Homo sapiens have been around for about two seconds. And yet what a fuss-- and a mess--we have made! Still, we are damned interesting creatures even if we are at one another’s throats most of the time.

What do you think of the absorbing mischief that humankind gets up to? We can discuss deleterious consequences of some idiot dining out on poor little pangolins, but I would prefer not to.

AL: I often muse upon the nature of productivity. And why humans have been forced to be so obsessed with the concept -- ugly distilled capitalism. This pandemic has forced us to look elsewhere for validation; for many, work can now no longer provide this, and people are reassessing what it means to be a human. I feel I've been wise to this for years - that humans are not designed to do do do, but to be be be, and that those who do not know the luxury of gentleness towards self will experience a very fraught and hectic life as they are incapable of just enjoying life at its slowest. 

JS: To amend Hamlet: To be or to do: that is the question. Why has it been so easy—and not just for capitalists—to slur and blur the difference you mention between doing and being, as if slaving away for a thankless boss or a reckless corporation really is the be-all and end-all of existence? I always heard that Americans live to work, while Europeans work [just enough] to live. Europeans tend to have more hobbies that richly engage their leisure time. Americans tend to be workaholics and consume-aholics (a disastrous word for a disastrous thing). But more and more I see the world imitating, as always, America and, while I am not one of those Blame America! types—I do wonder how and why Americans in particular have exalted Doing over Being. Or perhaps this is an invidious observation, and the highly-productive Germans, for example, are equally obsessed with Doing and its acquisitive corollary: Shopping. Germans absolutely love to go shopping. Many are paid twice (or used to be) in December to stimulate and encourage their Christmas shopping. 

‘Gentleness towards self’ is a beautiful phrase. Will the idea catch on? Love of gentleness towards self in a time of coronavirus? Or will people just become more selfish, more consumeristic (shopping on Amazon) and end up just Doing a lot of useless crap to kill time? 

AL: It is a truly ingenious ruse – For the most part, I think unkindly bestowed upon us by a capitalist system, but also easily propagated due to human nature. The desire to be productive and to create and to do is part of the human psyche but those motivations have been corrupted twofold. Firstly, we are told we must want to do all those things, but for the benefit of someone else. The “exploited proletariat” as Marx succinctly summed. Such that by the end of a working day, there is nothing left in the soul for anything else (Dissent, perhaps?). And secondly, those ideas have been drummed so consistently into us that we base our own self-worth upon our capacity for output. And when we do not “do”, we do not feel we are valuable as a human. How often have you heard the phrase “productive member of society?”. If anything conjures up images of a hapless drone, it is that. What a hopelessly uninspiring sentiment. And what an unnecessary one. By virtue of our birth into this world, we have the right to be. That should be the only criteria for value.

America is most certainly the epitome of this idea of misdirected productivity. It has committed so wholeheartedly that their citizens only receive 10 days annual leave a year. I will continue to talk fallaciously as if the country and its citizens are separate. It is the only way this makes sense. The citizens did not put themselves in this position. And they now struggle to extricate themselves; how dastardly and ingenious it was to create a health care system that provides access based on means only, and then tie that to your job, so that you may never leave the job, or else find you and your family hung out to dry. Wicked smart.

Also, as we are in the year of our Lord and Punisher, Covid-19, it seems prudent to mention how this system may have contributed so dangerously to the spread of the virus. Which has meant that - despite having a 4-week head start to prepare – America has become the epicenter for a disease that originated 7000 miles away. In a country where your access to health care is tied to your job; where there is no federal law mandating sick leave and where there is a culture of distrust of employees with regards to the validity of their reasons to be off (a whole different issue that ties into all of the previous paragraphs, and equally draws my ire), then people feel forced to attend work when they are unwell out of fear. And nothing makes a virus unzip its genetic material more gleefully.

I digress.

JS: I am fairly certain that other countries, both in the East and West, are obsessed with labour and exploiting it as far as possible. But possibly the health care and the sick leave policies are not so stingy and manipulative, so if you’re right, then the US is kind of perfect storm for the spread of the virus, with NYC being the centre of the centre, as it always seems to be.

On the other side of balance sheet, what do you make of Sweden?

Aside from limiting public gatherings to no more than 50 people, it's business as usual in Svenskiland. Stores, restaurants and bars are all open and the trains are running in Stockholm. No standing is allowed in restaurants and bars (only seated customers), but otherwise life goes on as usual. The idea is to let the virus spread among the younger and stronger Swedes (with immunity building) while sheltering the elderly and more vulnerable sectors of the population. This past weekend the nice weather drew fairly large crowds in Gamla stan (the old town) and the public spaces were mostly filled. Anders Tegnell, Sweden's chief epidemiologist, is the architect of the policy. Depending on how things work out, he'll be hero or goat. 

We can get back to doing v. being, but you have loads of medical training, so I wonder what you think of the way the Swedes are handling this pandemic. They are being cautious but not zealous and they probably won’t ruin their economy for years to come because of their reaction to the virus.

AL: Svenskiland is held up in many people’s minds as a mysterious utopia. Not of this world surely? Yet there they stand, gleaming and blonde, for all to see. Everything it does it seems to do better, but not even in a nebulous indeterminate way. They have data to prove they are superior. Better in being vs. doing most certainly. However, and I am cautious to stay in my non-epidemiologically trained lane here, their approach seems foolhardy. A virus you do not know cannot have assumptions made of it. What if there is no immunity proffered post infection? What if the virus mutates while flitting around this bountiful offering of young Swedes? What if it is found to affect other areas than the respiratory system? What if those who catch it live but are left with permanent lung damage? There are too many “what ifs” to expose any sector of the population to it at this stage. My worry is he will become King Caprine indeed. Only time will tell. And time is, for once, what many of us seem to have in abundance.

JS: Time will either vindicate the Swedes or demonstrate their epidemiological hubris. As Julius Caesar so winningly said, “It’s only hubris if I fail.” And he didn’t. But 20-20 hindsight is already a favourite pastime on the news, even as the phenomenon unfolds. As a percentage of any county’s population or the world’s staggeringly large population, this virus is still a flash in the pan/demic. But its little tragedy is by far more interesting than a thousand tedious comedies. I have a dark reading of our macabre fascination that I will disgorge a bit later in our dialogue.

To return to our more philosophical reflections, it remains to be seen how many people from any given culture use all this abundant time for doing or being. Certainly, the latter stands a better chance than it’s ever had, for many. One has the opportunity to meditate, to read, to love, to go for long walks (if the drones are not too intrusive), to spend three hours cooking a meal and two hours eating it, to luxuriate in the dialectical beauty of another’s mind, to sleep half the morning, to stay up half the night petting heaven knows what fantasies, to sip rather than slurp life. But I suspect—and I count myself indicted in advance—that most people will not learn new habits of Being, but rather lapse into habits at once desultory and frantic that resemble Doing all over again. Old horrible habits die hard. And la peste has not yet made us become loners nearly long enough to see any radical alteration in either zeitgeist or the temporal routines of everyday life. It will take much more than the temporary pandaemonium of a pandemic to jolt people into a new sensibility that prizes being over doing.

To go with my new pun (conceived in blissful isolation):

Falling in love with one’s captivity is Stuckholm’s Syndrome.

But I think it will take one hell of a long time for most people in self-isolation to fall in love in this way. What do you think? Am I being too pessimistic? Can old habits kill themselves in a month or two and give way to a fecund and beautiful gentleness towards self?

AL:  We shall see. And most likely be furious that the Swedes sorted it without giving up any personal freedoms or even really seeming that bothered at all; meanwhile we are all over here screaming at one another over loo roll and 2 meters distance. One of my friends even accidentally caused someone to choose a pile of brambles while running in order to maintain this crucial space. We have all maddened slightly.

Regarding this not being sufficient for radical alterations; I must disagree. If this once in lifetime pandemic cannot substantially alter our sensibilities - what possibly could? It is almost as if we are having a collective near-death experience. And nothing jolts the sensibilities quite like one of those. You realise in an instant what you value most highly. For most it has turned out to be their human connections and their health – a valuable lesson in the non-sensical nature of modern-day consumerism; something we are all party to (and victim of). “Stuff” will not make you happy when you are not happy within.

But where I have abundant gentleness towards self, I also have for others. And it is undoubtedly hard to change your fundamental approach to life in the face of consistent uncertainty. However, it is ultimately simple. While you, in the face of unprecedented time off and a global crisis, whittle away your days doing not very much; do not feel guilty for that. Feel joy at letting yourself take the path of least resistance. I learned this long ago. My job entails me thinking for 10 hours a day consistently, with constant clinical conundrums and questions from all angles. The moment I am home, instead of engaging in one of my many hobbies, I have been known to simply lie on the floor. I put on something inevitably composed by Hans Zimmer, and I just lay there in the solitude and quiet of my intentionally empty brain. I think if doctors would see a trace of the electricity in my brain, they’d think me dead. I think nothing, I do nothing. I simply…Be. And then sometimes shortly after, I would get angry at myself when I glanced at an unfinished project or an unwritten email, and that was when I appreciated the pervasive nature of Doing. And actively rallied against it.

I would not say you are a pessimist. Perhaps like me you can be an “optimistic realist”. I hope for what I consider the best outcome, but I am understanding when it does not materalise. I hope people remember to be gentle to themselves and happy with their quietness and new slow pace of life, but I expect they won’t. But I think the seed has been planted. I think the collective global priorities have been unearthed. I think it has become abundantly clear that most jobs can be performed from home; that most jobs need not invasively take up your whole functional day like a little capitalist cockroach. It has become clear who is key (food supply chain workers and medical personnel) and who is entirely disposable (footballers, Instagram influencers, celebrities). Even more than before, it has highlighted the impotence and self-serving hubris of politicians and how unfit for purpose they are. I want a post-post-post-modern revolution.

Or am I leaning too far towards optimist there? Do you think, after one large huffing heave, it will all settle back disappointingly to where it was? Perhaps for the select few elites and global head runners, their livelihood will depend on it going back to “normal”, and so it will happen without us wanting it to. Maybe by this point, we have a learned helplessness to us?

Have you heard the term Ecofascism? It’s the perfect discussion point for wannabe misanthropes in today’s current climate. I have even fallen into its seductive traps a few times in my thinking…

JS: Can one unlearn helplessness? Things will have to get much worse for much longer, I think, for that to happen. It will begin with small things like cooking and trying to give yourself a haircut and then the new self-reliance may possibly grow into big stuff like how to fix your car, how to garden from your balcony terrace, and how to tinker with your own life, if not with life itself. A prolonged jolt—say four months—might revolutionise people’s sensibilities and values. And millions will remain out of work as people also discover that they don’t need to eat out as much, go to theatre as much, trek around the planet as much, and drive as much. Various ecosystems will get a chance to breathe again. But millions of people will have to re-train in professions that have been discovered to be essential and not merely decorative or desirable.

A new hierarchy of needs, demands, and desires will emerge, with the top tier tapering quickly, to help make the point. If a benignant form of Ecofascism is required to enforce these new habits, then people will have to cooperate. But it is rather silly to see police in London patrolling the streets in order to chastise—and fine—people who are walking too far from homes for their daily bit of exercise. I want to obey the new laws and not walk all over the rather serene ghost-town of London (the air in London has not been this clean in decades) but I also do not want to give up all autonomy to help stamp out a virus that so far has killed only a tiny percentage of the population.

How are people—and you in particular—making the adjustment in Sheffield? Are the citizens being mostly obedient? Do you sense profound changes or temporary ones? Too early to say?

AL: I think one can unlearn helplessness, but it takes a pretty seismic psyche shift and a lot of internal work. But perhaps this is the catalyst? I write this dialogue accidentally covered in hair as I have just carried out point two you mentioned; and lopped off some of Harry’s locks. I feel well on my way to stamping on established protocols and emerging anew into a different world. However, I don’t think Harry will want to leave until his hair has grown back. I am many great things, but hairdresser is not one of them. 

I have noted, from my comfortable hideaway within the internet that there is a rumble of change; where once there was nothing but an endless stream of kitschy posts about productivity and “hustling” and the “grind”, I am now seeing posts reminding people that we are to be kind to ourselves in such uncertain times, that productivity is a lie pushed upon us by a system that benefits from us feeling ashamed when we aren’t and that there should be no expectation for achieving things when we are all quite frankly in a collective state of unease. So maybe we are becoming Human Beings. Not Human Doings.

I think a short-term reduction in autonomy is worth it to save even a few people, let alone thousands. Even if it only forms a small percentage of the population, to those individuals it means everything. Humans are inherently bad at assessing risk and this combined with a general feeling of invincibility and a lack of robust data, makes this whole situation seem rather nebulous. But it truly is not. Of course, we must be wise to any attempt of the Government to overreach its jurisdiction (we need only take a look at Hungary to see a tale as old as time play out; there’s never a better time to grab power than an international crisis – people are far less likely to resist or notice). But I believe at this moment in time, the risks of a totalitarian state are low while the risks of the virus are high. But I remain cautious and wily.

Sheffield is as quiet as can be. Moving 98% of my worldly possessions out of my flat, only to then realise I was likely going to have to remain in it for 3 months longer than planned, has been unfortunate timing to say the least. I would value this time off most completely, revel in my solitude, if only I was able to pursue my creative outlets. Instead I found myself floating spectrally around, not able to sit at a table to work, nor sit on a chair to read. I moped for a while, but I forced myself a little more into a structure and focused on the things I could do. So we are back on track. And you? It sounds like you and the Mothership have eased into this mandated holiday quite pleasantly. It makes me wish for a Universal Basic Income – how wonderful it would be to take a few months off every now and again, and be assured that you could still support yourself? How much less trapped many of us would feel.    

JS: I like the idea of a Universal Basic Income so long as everyone chips in according to his or her abilities and earning power. The idea may gain traction in smallish, prosperous countries like Denmark but not find vast support in countries deeply divided by education, wealth and—dare I say—class? Can countries like the US, the UK, Russia, and China ever really get beyond the differences in wealth that make certain socialist—or communist—ideas impossible?

I have felt trapped my entire life by having to work non-stop since the age of 16, but I have counterbalanced that grim fact by being an academic and enjoying relatively long holidays at relatively low pay. But I have always been attracted to Marx’s perhaps whimsical idea of the plural spheres of existence whereby one can hunt, fish, rear cattle and play the literary critic in the evening. The best I have so far managed is to play the literary critic pretty much all day and then to read and tipple in the evening, with a bit of tennis and squash thrown in. That is, a blend of Doing and Being that does not oppress too much. I have pity and sometimes a little contempt for those who make wads of money, work 60 hours per week, take fabulous holidays, but have only 3-4 weeks of holiday per year. What I admire about you and Harry is your having seen so clearly the ‘man behind the curtain’ (ideology) and how it coerces us into a pattern of living that is inimical to the human spirit and its healthy instinct for ingenuity and, well, freedom.  

My philosophical mentor (Professor Debra Bergoffen) was teaching a class on Heidegger and she said, “Being human doesn’t come naturally to us”. I wrote it down—in my young and trembling heart (I had a crush on her!) and obviously have never forgotten its witty wisdom. Does its ironic flavor have some bearing on the present discussion? Do we need to be taught how to be human/e again? Was that Marx’s ethical stance? Is time at the very centre of our dialogue?

AL: I think it is not about whether countries like the US, UK, Russia and China could ever get beyond the differences in wealth, but whether they would ever let us go beyond that. Most of those countries are a tumultuous mix of oligarchies, totalitarian states and distilled late stage capitalist black holes. I cannot imagine them ever releasing their grip. And we all feel the uncomfortable pressure of that grip.

I do not believe those plural spheres to be whimsical at all, I believe that concept to be the human imperative. How on earth can any person be only one thing? Humans are a prism and life is the beam of sunshine and it should hit us so powerfully that we throw colour all over the walls. And it pains me almost spiritually to see a world full of people never given a chance to fulfil that due to all these factors that feel very out of their control. The system is very confusing; we are largely expected to know exactly what we want “to do” (NB: phrasing…) from the age of 16 and then there is not very much sympathy for wanting to take a drastic turn in the future, nor is there a way to extricate yourself from the trappings of a system built on extracting labour from you for 60% of your life in exchange for generally quite pitiful wages. But how can anyone know what their life’s mission will be at 16? It is absurd. I am both very lucky and very abnormal in that I knew what I wanted “to do” from a young age and it did not change as I aged. And being a veterinarian is very much a part of me but even that, in all its potential fulfillment, cannot possibly encompass all that I am and all that I may be. I want to be a writer, a detective, a costume designer, an actress. I even have a list on my phone to remind me. But I, like you, have picked a primary and indulge in the secondaries. Which, to be fair, is not actually a bad way to operate. But unlike you I have the freedom to choose to take on less of my primary in order to engage in more of the secondaries which is a choice that we all should have. And unlike many others, both of our primaries are things that we do fundamentally enjoy and resonate with. But that still doesn’t mean we want to do it for five days out of seven. Quite the opposite, actually. You and I have rallied against this system every time we speak, but do you think there is a way you can make it work for yourself? How would you get to work less and leave more time to develop those secondaries? 

I love that quote and it resonates with me too, and I think it is true but only by virtue of the world we are squeezed into, not by virtue of us as people. I think it would come naturally to us, if only the environment fostered it. But I don’t think modern societies foster much of humanity. I absolutely do think we need to be taught again. Except it isn’t about being taught, it is about being allowed to learn. Just as children learn to play and gain key social skills from that, so too should we be able to “play” at being human. I love/loathe to gender but society and the world should be the just and overseeing mother, not the harsh and unchanging father.

Time truly is at the centre of this. It is all about time. The lack of it, the want of it, the not-knowing-what-to-do with it, the passage of it. It is wrapped up in everything. And maybe is at the heart of what we are speaking of. 

JS: Let me lift in a painting that you may or may not have seen when you were visiting Chicago last year. The painting hangs in the Art Institute and is called “The Song of the Lark (1884)” by Jules Breton. I installed it as the frontispiece to our dialogue and here supply a close-up that allows us to see the expression on the young woman’s face.

Just as she has been “arrested” (an 18th-century word) by the song of the skylark high in the sky, so too was I arrested and just stood there, in the art gallery, time itself under arrest, and I stared at her face. She is not working, but listening—not having the time to listen, but taking or making [the] time for listening, for sudden pleasure. Her right hand carries her scythe (her onerous day-job) but that left hand is, to me, even more captivating than her rapt expression. The right hand is for doing [work], the left hand for simply being there, just as she is being there for the skylark’s distant music. Both arms seem a bit stiff, even stunned, as if the woman has been made stock-still by what she is hearing. One recalls “Ode to a Skylark,” by Percy Shelley. Inspired by George Meredith’s lyric fantasy, “The Lark Ascending,” Vaughn Williams scores a musical composition of the same name that has become famous. Soon, the woman in the painting will be back to working the fields, cutting grass or hay, but with a song in her heart and part of her, one playfully imagines, will be as remote and liberated as a soaring, singing skylark. What has happened to her, happens to the gallery-goer, if we make time for her, for the painting. And what else can or should we make time for? What if we turned the world into the Art Institute and walked around seeing almost everything with a keen and lively aesthetic sensibility? 

Making time for etymology, I note the following: 

Lark (noun.2)

"spree, frolic, merry adventure," 1811, slang, of uncertain origin. Possibly a shortening of skylark (1809), sailors' slang for "play rough in the rigging of a ship" (larks were proverbial for high-flying). Or perhaps it is an alteration of English dialectal or colloquial lake/laik "to play, frolic, make sport" (c. 1300, from Old Norse leika "to play," from PIE *leig- (3) "to leap") with unetymological -r- common in southern British dialect. The verb lake, considered characteristic of Northern English vocabulary, is the opposite of work but lacks the other meanings of play. As a verb, from 1813. Related: Larkedlarking.

Can art teach us how to play again? Nietzsche wrote: “We must regain the seriousness of a child at play.” To the extent that work and play beautifully dovetail, to that extent the human being becomes healthy and whole again. Why do something, anything? -- on a lark! If we don’t make time for larking, then whose fault is that? If we are miserable in our work, have we anyone to blame but ourselves?

AL: It seems to be the case that society in its current form is so resistant to these moments of wonder, yet the world is so full of them regardless. We should be awed at least once a day I’m sure of it – we should be taking the time to be in awe. In this lockdown, I have found myself listening to the birds more keenly, taking the time to really hear them. I walked into town and fed the pigeons, who are all at a loss given the rapid disappearance of their meal tickets. And what a wonder it is to sit amongst a flock as they peck trustingly at your feet. People think it’s just feeding pigeons, but it can be so much more than that. The world is so very awesome. But so wrapped up are we in the mundanity of the unrelenting treadmill of modern life that we rarely have these moments. I love your interpretation of the painting. A moment snatched back from the forces that compel you to “do”. Art is humanity. Art is an imperative. We become convinced from an early age that art is something you can be “good” at and to not be good at something is to fail and therefore people do not persist with art. But this is not how it should be perceived, and I feel like people who are not engaging with all that is creative have blinded themselves and are stumbling around without realising. It’s an expression of your soul, not there to be a manifesto of your skill. Writing, singing, drawing, painting, these are things we should all be doing with regularity. Before I even really knew its significance, I would write. I was never particularly keen to share things with people verbally, but to write them down was to let them roam all around and eventually away. To appreciate art is to appreciate life. And I agree that if we do not make the time for larking then we are at fault. I think the modern set up of society takes a lot from us, but it cannot take those moments. So for us to not seek them out is an intrinsic failing, and a catastrophic arse-over-tit fall on our route to bliss. I’ve always loved that Nietzsche quotation. I think of it as my unofficial motto. There is no reason why the imagination and intrinsic happiness of a child shouldn’t make its way with us to adulthood. But we must foster and care for that inner child, like we would a real one. In fact, my inner child is the only child I intend on ever raising. And so I will most likely spoil her rotten and she is probably on her way to Violet Beauregard levels of brattiness. But she will be oh so happy, even when she turns purple and flies away.

We would do well to embody this woman, poised in awe, at the simplicity of something, whatever it is. Each of us decides what that is ourselves. And once again the beauty of art reveals itself. I hope you are able to have a moment like that a day. What is the last thing you stopped and stared in awe at, or even just meditated silently upon?

And now that we are 4 or 5 weeks or so through this lockdown and therefore through this dialogue, do you feel any differently than when we began? Are you still embracing your Stuckholm Syndrome?

JS: I first thing I must report: Denise Nickerson (“Charlotte Beauregarde”) was born in 1957 and died in 2019. Yes, blueberry-girl, punished for her consuming curiosity, inflated by insatiability, was born in the same year that deposited me in the world. As your “inner child” she has predecessors stretching back to hungry, curious Eve (apple-girl!), who may have brought about the Fall of Mankind (Adam had to fall, according to “felix culpa”) but her intense curiosity also anticipates Kant’s “Sapere aude”—the watch-words of the European Enlightenment. Daring to wonder is the first stage of daring to know. I am reminded that early Greek philosophy begins in wonder (θαῦμα), and that all advanced thinking seems to be born from intellectual rapture (raptus—being “carried away”). Wonder abducts us, transports us to skylarks, makes us so curious and song-struck that we are besides ourselves with aesthetic pleasure. Wonder makes us ponder not what the world is, but that the world is. As you well know, the cosmic probability of our being in this particular Goldilocks Zone is vanishingly low, and that we are here at all for a stretch of decades is the most compelling “miracle” of evolution (a production of Time) that I know. Wonder keeps us young. Wonder is lost in time, if not in space-time. 

From larking to Larkin, I leave you with his whimsical demolition then reconstruction of religion, the very idea of religion. What the skylark is to our young woman in the fields, enraptured by distant song, water is to the poet.


If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

I conclude by observing my favourite moment from Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks: “Thus Thales had seen the unity of all that is, but when he went to communicate it, he found himself talking about water!” The early philosopher is/as a creature of wonder, drenched by insight, soused by metaphor. 

The last thing I stared at in awe was your most recent entry for this dialogue.

As for the lock-down, it has done for me something like what that wheelchair did for Stephen Hawking: it has liberated my imagination. I am reading and writing more than I have in years, and keeping a London Journal in a Time of Coronavirus. And, as you have the pigeons of Sheffield, I have the squirrels of Brompton Cemetery. Wonderful creatures, if you make the time. Why did it take a pandemic to give us time for wonder?

AL: I think there’s a whole different dialogue in the works if I start musing on all the classical depictions of women and the (arguably) masculine fear of their alleged duplicity and wiles. From apple girl to blueberry girl, there is something to discuss within both those depictions I am sure. Perhaps that is for another time!

Without intentionally derailing the thread of this dialogue; how magnificent is space? The most compelling (yet vacuous) being I know. I love to think of the species and civilizations that assuredly exist in our universe, and know that they have thought the same, are thinking the same or will think the same of little old me. Does that make me special? That aliens have thought of me, even conceptually? It should make us all feel special. Alas, the laws of physics dictate that “never the twain shall meet” but I think on them all the same. That thought carries me away for sure and I happily let it.

What a beautiful poem. I read it many times over to fully enjoy every meaning. I can’t seem to write poetry; my excuse is I find it too restrictive. How am I meant to convey all the feeling and metaphysics of the subject in a few short lines? Then I read poems like yours and I realise I just do not yet have the knack, but that it is endlessly possible.

I am glad you feel the way you do about lockdown. Your imagination was hammering at the bars and, like so many others, needed the rubble of a collapsing society to blink its way into the light. The world we have left behind was broken in so many ways. I hope that when we come back up for air, we completely go back to the drawing board, instead of sitting frustratedly in the rubble trying to stick back together the damaged foundations. A system that works so poorly for so many is not one deserving of renewal.

I want to thank you for inviting me into dialoging. I have never written a dialogue before, and it has been a pleasure to share my thoughts with someone eager to read them. I so often just muse internally, throwing these thoughts around ad infinitum, with no outlet in sight, so it is nice to share them. Maybe next time I will be able to include a poem of my own! First, I will have to overcome my own hypocrisy surrounding the fear of starting something and not being good at it. Baby steps are required to create a full and miraculous human.